Oregon's Mushroom Crop Attracts Pickers

fromOPB

Every October Oregon becomes a mecca for mushroom pickers. In the past, most have ties to southeast Asia, where harvesting the forest is part of traditional culture. Because of the tough economy, less experience pickers are showing up to try to make money. Some mushrooms are worth more than $700 a pound on the international market.

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And in southern Oregon, the local economy is a bit more brisk. That's because when temperatures start to drop, migrant workers head to the wooded region along the California border to pick mushrooms. It's not an easy job, and this year, it's even tougher, as Ethan Lindsey of Oregon Public Radio reports.

ETHAN LINDSEY: This national forest land in Oregon may very well be the mushroom capital of the world between September and November.

Mr. SAM LI (Mushroom Picker): My name is Sam Li(ph). The mushrooms are not too many.

LINDSEY: Sam Li is Laotian-American. He's chasing matsutake mushrooms, but says this year there aren't that many. Matsis, as they're called, are a prized delicacy in Japan. At one point in the '90s, they fetched $750 per pound on the international market. They're closer to $25 a pound these days, but pickers like Li say if you can find a lot of them, that price is still good enough to make money. Li lives in Fresno, California for most of the year, but he's come to Oregon every fall since 1986. And he's not the only one.

Ms. GIDGET FLANAGAN (Motel Owner, Oregon): I primarily have Mong(ph) in the back, and I have Minh(ph) over there. On this end, there's Lao.

LINDSEY: Gidget Flanagan(ph) runs a small roadside motel in the town of Zumwalt. These days, she's the unofficial mayor, sheriff and innkeeper for more than a hundred people camping on her property.

Ms. FLANAGAN: Everybody is out in the woods gathering. In about five hours, it's gonna be bustling - people getting ready for their dinner, and then you're going to smell all the food. So that's amazing. It's incredible at night, actually, a breathing community that just doesn't stop.

LINDSEY: At night, the south side of town around Flanagan's inn grows into a combination campsite, shanty town and outdoor mushroom market. Most everyone is of Southeast Asian ancestry, where harvesting the forest is part of traditional culture.

Ms. FLANAGAN: Many of them will follow the matsutake specifically, like migrant workers. Yeah, they'll do huckleberries. They'll do chanterelles. They'll do morels. They'll do matsutakes, and then after matsutakes they'll go and they'll do something else. They see it as a job. It's just a job.

LINDSEY: But the economy has changed things this year. Cece Headley is with the Eugene-based Alliance of Forest Workers and Harvesters. They're a mostly volunteer group that provides language interpretation and other services to the pickers.

Ms. CECE HEADLEY (Alliance of Forest Workers and Harvesters): There are probably more younger Southeast Asians coming and more new and first-time pickers, a lot are first-time pickers, you know, who would normally have another job. Mostly, it's poor people, and poor people are having a really hard time. It's a really, really - it's always hard to be poor, but right now it's really difficult.

Mr. ENRIQUE SANTOS (Forest Monitor, Alliance of Forest Workers and Harvesters): I've never seen so many people, and so many inexperienced people.

LINDSEY: Enrique Santos is a forest monitor with the Alliance. He was brought in to work with Spanish speakers, who are showing up in greater numbers than ever. He says inexperienced workers don't get much help from the old hands who try to keep the best mushroom fields to themselves. For instance, Santos worked with one family of 10 migrant workers that came down from Washington this year for the first time.

Mr. SANTOS: They ended up spending a thousand bucks, and they were only making, like, a dollar a day per person.

LINDSEY: Good pickers are making some money, but they say the weather this year started out too dry to produce top-rate mushrooms. But the harvesting community still has to buy gas, food, and on a good day in the forest, beer, and all that money stays here in Oregon, where the locals certainly need it.

For NPR News, I'm Ethan Lindsey.

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